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The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond

Thomas Ruys Smith

Head, Department of American Studies, University of East Anglia

Ralph Keeler is the most extraordinary American that you’ve never heard of—a performer, traveler and writer who blazed a trail through the heart of literary scene on both sides of the continent in the decade after the Civil War. His astonishing adventures—and, particularly, his equally enigmatic end—can be traced through the pages of America’s Historical Newspapers.

A potted biography can hardly do justice to the vicissitudes of Keeler’s short life: as a runaway child, Keeler became part of a minstrel troupe that travelled around the country, including a stint along the Mississippi River in a showboat. Leaving that life behind to pursue an education, he made his way to Europe where he enrolled as a student at Heidelberg University. Returning to America after the Civil War, he gravitated to San Francisco—at that moment, the capital of Bohemian life in the newly reunited nation. It was an apt choice: Keeler’s flamboyant personal style soon captured the attention of the city’s literati, and he became friends with writers like Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard. At first he worked as a teacher: notice of his address to the “The State Teachers’ Institute,” in his role as “Principal of the Foreign Evening School,” appeared in the Weekly Alta-California, the city’s leading newspaper, in May 1867.

Soon, more and more regularly, he began to appear in the pages of the Alta as a columnist—normally using the pen name “Allaquiz.” In July 1867, for example, he produced an account of a San Francisco schoolteachers’ outing to the Sierras, in his typically light and ironic style.

Before long, however, Keeler was on the move again. Foreshadowing the path that his friends Twain and Harte would soon tread themselves, he headed across the continent for Boston. He also stepped onto the lecture stage, properly beginning the process of turning life into art that would dominate his career. In February 1868, the Boston Daily Advertiser ran an approving review of Keeler’s “Views Barefooted” lecture, his account of his youthful, penniless travels in Europe, noting, “He resembles some what a specimen of the ‘nice young man’ class, who would, of course, shrink form the acts about which the lecturer tells; but this impression is dispelled as the story of the extraordinary European tour progresses, until it is quite easy to imagine Mr. Keeler in the awkward and comical situations which he makes you laugh over.”

Again, it did not take him long to make some useful friends in his new home: he became close with William Dean Howells and Thomas Bailey Aldrich at the moment that both writers were becoming influential within that vital literary hub. He wrote for the prominent publications that both men edited—the Atlantic and Every Saturday—and soon became well known as a travelling correspondent for a variety of publications, cultivating a distinctive and pioneering Bohemian persona that became a familiar presence in American magazines and newspapers. In 1872, for example, he headed to Geneva to cover the arbitration of the Alabama claims. By that time, his movements themselves were a matter of interest: “Notable among the notabilities of all sorts that have been collected together at Geneva this year,” reported the Daily Albany Argus, “is Ralph Keeler, the prince of American Bohemians.”

And yet, for all that it brought him fame, it was his role as a travelling newspaper correspondent that would ultimately prove his undoing. At the end of 1873, Ralph Keeler set off for Cuba as a correspondent for the New-York Tribune. At that moment, Cuba was at war, and the story of the “Virginius Affair” was dominating American newspapers. The Virginius was an American steamship that was initially built as a blockade runner by the Confederacy in 1864. By 1873, however, it was running a different blockade, ferrying men, munitions and other supplies to Cuban rebels attempting to gain independence from Spain. At the end of October, captained by Joseph Fry commanding a crew of American and British sailors, the Virginius’s luck ran out. The ship was captured by the Spanish who swiftly began executing the crew in large numbers. Reactions in the American press—already opposed to the Spanish—were immediate and outraged. The Tribune, for example, volubly criticized what it saw as Spain’s “injudicious indulgence in the delights of murder,” motivated by “bloodthirsty hate.”

In such a climate, with America debating war, this was clearly a dangerous assignment for Keeler. His friends certainly understood the peril: William Dean Howells remembered warning him, “Don’t go Keeler […] They’ll garotte you down there.” [1]  But Keeler was insouciant in the face of peril. By early December he was busy filing dramatic accounts of life in Havana, documenting the “popular rage” against American diplomatic demands.

But by just after Christmas, Keeler himself had become the story. In an update on the Cuban situation, the Tribune noted: “It is reported [...] that Ralph Keeler, a special correspondent of THE TRIBUNE, left Santiago de Cuba [...] about ten days ago. At Manzanillo he was missing, though his baggage was still on board. Not having been heard from on the 21st, it is feared that some serious accident has befallen him.”

As the days passed without news from Keeler, those fears only grew. And as early as New Year’s Day, 1874, the Tribune felt obliged to run an emotional obituary for their missing writer: “It seems impossible longer to resist the conclusion that the waters of the Gulf have closed over the young and gifted man of letters who represented THE TRIBUNE during the last few weeks at Santiago de Cuba. Ralph Keeler had probably not an enemy in the world.”

Indeed, as every account of Keeler made clear, he had many friends, and some of the more famous of them produced heartfelt testimonies to their missing colleague. Thomas Bailey Aldrich was first among them, in a letter to the Tribune that was unsparing in his praise of a friend who now seemed a “heroic example.”  

On the same day, The Daily Graphic ran a portrait of Keeler above the caption: “The Murdered ‘Tribune’ Correspondent in Cuba.”

Yet what exactly had happened to Keeler became a matter of some debate. Most agreed that Keeler was murdered by Spanish soldiers in an act of anti-American violence. But others, like the Troy Weekly Times, felt that the cause of his disappearance lay closer to home: “Ralph Keeler [...] is supposed to have been insane. He was an eccentric genius.”

Keeler’s enigmatic end lingered long enough in the memory to feature in an item about “Some Strange Cases Which Have Baffled the Detectives” in 1885: “He was very amiable and agreeable, bubbling over with sanguineness, and had, like most of his tribe, too little money to excite the cupidity of rascals. There has never been any solution to his mystery.”

And there never was. Before long, Keeler’s fascinating life and perplexing death had been forgotten, remembered only by the friends who had known him at such a vital moment in their lives and careers. “I now realize that I loved him,” Howells declared in 1900, “though I did as little to show it as men commonly do.” [2] Keeler may never have been found, but thanks to America’s Historical Newspapers we can rediscover his unique trajectory through American culture.


[1] William Dean Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1900), 277.

[2] Howells, Literary Friends, 275.

Thomas Ruys Smith is Head of the Department of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. Smith’s primary field of research and teaching expertise is 19th-century literature and culture. His first book, River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi Before Mark Twain (Louisiana State University Press, 2007) was an interdisciplinary examination of the different roles played by the Mississippi in antebellum American culture. His second book, Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century (Continuum, 2011), was an exploration of the life and culture of one of America's most fascinating cities during a crucible period in its history. He is also the editor of a number of books including, most recently, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music: America Changed Through Music (Routledge, 2016). His article “‘A Family Newspaper’: Pearl Rivers and the Rebirth of the New Orleans Daily Picayune” appeared in The Readex Report (2013).

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